China nudges North Korea toward the outside world

China's president steps in where the US had gone before: to revive reconciliation in the Koreas

In his first visit in 10 years to isolated North Korea, Jiang Zemin visited a schoolchildren's palace, an ostrich farm, and held several lengthy discussions with reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il - whose regime is often cited by Washington officials as the leading nuclear threat in Asia.

By the time President Jiang left Pyongyang yesterday amid bouquet-laden children chanting old-fashioned Communist slogans of peace and friendship - it appears China has quietly moved from the sidelines to a key role in the fitful reconciliation process between the two Koreas, started last year.

"Kim Jong Il probably would have liked direct talks with the US," says a European diplomat. "What's significant about Jiang's trip is that China has jumped on the opportunity left by a slow-moving Bush administration, and has inserted itself between the US and the Korean process."

Jiang's visit comes at a time when the so-called "sunshine" policy of reconciliation between North and South is so dim that this week South Korea's entire 22-member cabinet resigned in protest.

The resignations in Seoul followed a vote of no confidence by the National Assembly in Unification Minister Lim Dong-Won - who only a year ago was hailed as the architect of a policy that brought Koreans together for the first time in nearly 50 years, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who made an emotional visit to Pyongyang last year.

South Korean politicians are frustrated over the lack of any clear dates for a promised trip to Seoul by North Korean leader Kim, and for the signing of a "North-South Declaration of Peace" that would help unfreeze the long-time status of high military alert on the peninsula.

Late yesterday, a Chinese external ministry spokesman stated that in "intensive" talks between Jiang and Kim Jong Il, the Chinese leader "reiterated the consistent position of China ... reiterated that China will support all efforts of reunification." He went on to say that "China will continue to support the North-South dialogue, and work for an independent and peaceful reunification," he added.

China supports unification of the peninsula, but was not the driving force behind last year's historic meetings between the two sides, experts say. Much of the sunshine policy between the two Koreas was helped by US initiatives under the Clinton administration.

Beijing watched as Washington entered the North Asian region and was so directly involved in the historic reconciliation that President Clinton almost traveled to Pyongyang last fall. Yet, as the Bush administration assumed office in January, the two Koreas, rightly or wrongly, felt they were given a low priority, if not something of a cold shoulder.

South Korea's Kim Dae-Jung visited Washington early this year, seeking assurances of active "sunshine" support, but returned home empty handed, as President Bush suspended talks with North Korea in January. In March, North Korea unilaterally suspended high level talks with the South, citing the Bush policy review.

During those months, as well, the Bush administration began campaigning for its defense missile shield plans; supporters of the program used North Korea, which is developing long-range missile capability, as an example of a "rogue state" that makes the case for the costly defensive measure.

During those months, North Korean leader Kim secretly visited China.

Some Asia-watchers say the geopolitics of recent months has allowed for a realignment and creation of two "blocks" of interests on the Korean peninsula. On one side are the shared interests of China, Russia, and North Korea. On the other are the US, Japan, and South Korea.

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